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Excerpt: Chapter One
I stood over the body and cursed.
"There's nothing you could've done," Max said. "She lost too much blood."
I allowed myself a single display of temper: I punched through the wooden railing of the beachside boardwalk.
"That's going to confuse the police," he said, looking at the splintered wood.
I turned and strode for the beach. My hand was bleeding, and I picked splinters out of my knuckles as we walked. I have a high tolerance for pain, but I was dripping blood all over the sand, so I ripped off one of my sleeves and bound my knuckles with it. Max politely said nothing and got out his cell phone to call in an anonymous tip.
The police wouldn't know what to make of her anyway, a bloodless body without a mark. It was part of my job to keep them from suspecting the supernatural existed, but I couldn't put blood back in that girl's body, and I wasn't going to hide it and make her family spend decades hoping she was still alive. She'd looked to be nineteen, maybe younger. What a fucking waste.
It was late, almost two a. m., so I didn't bother with a glamour as Max and I went up the deserted beach to my diner. My wings drifted behind me, and I walked to the edge of the water where the sand was firmer, letting my right wingtip trail through the still-warm water of the gulf. I could already see the lights of my restaurant ahead. The bastard had killed within two hundred yards of it. It was an insult.
"They're on their way," Max said, pocketing his phone and coming into step with me. "It's good we found her before the storm hit."
"Yes." There was a good chance her body would've been dragged out to sea by the hurricane if we'd just left her there.
"There'll be more questions this way."
He fell silent while we walked. He knew better than to try and comfort me; we'd been working together too long.
We reached my diner, the front covered by a corrugated steel security gate, and I took out the key and unlocked it.
"You going to ride it out here?" Max's normally carefree face was concerned. He was a telepath—he knew what I'd planned already—but he liked to give me the illusion of privacy.
"You can go," I said. "Go take care of Kaitlin or Kathy or whatever her name is."
"Kellie." He flashed a grin that was almost apologetic. "Thanks."
I flapped my hand at him, and he took off for his car.
After he'd sped down the empty street, I stood on the front porch and looked at the stacks of plywood waiting to be nailed up. Max and I had almost finished boarding up the windows when I'd felt the near-death terror of the victim and gone racing down the beach. There were still three more to go. The Sand Angel Grill had been through seven hurricanes since I'd owned it, and this wouldn't be the first one to blow it down, but Mandy was a small storm, and I was hoping to get away without too much damage.
I picked up the hammer, held a half dozen nails between my lips and went to work on the last few windows. It had been a long time since I'd gotten an alarm like that. I was Biloxi's guardian, a sort of supernatural police chief, so when something went wrong in the city, I could feel it. Usually, I sensed rogue sups before they got into any trouble. Not this time. The vampire who attacked that girl must have been a powerful one. Old enough to have control over his bloodlust, to know how to keep me from sensing him. It was troubling. I slammed the last nail in and tossed the hammer behind my cash register. It would do.
I should've gone inside to get what rest I could before the storm hit, but I was too unsettled. Natural disasters are difficult times for guardians. There's not much we can do about them—nothing to fight—and the chaos was going to weaken my communion with the city. Max was smart to take off for his girlfriend's. For the next two days, I was going to be difficult to be around. More difficult, Max would say.
But the storm wouldn't hit for a few hours. I had time. I left the security gate open and walked barefoot onto the beach.
The sky was full of beautiful fury, all rolling blue-grey clouds above a white-capped sea. The beach was still deserted, so I kept my glamour down as I walked to the water and stretched my wings. It was a relief after keeping them furled all day. My glamour kept them from being seen, but that didn't mean the wait staff couldn't run into them. Once, out on the beach at sunrise, I'd been stretching them out and a jogger had run right into them and gone sprawling. She'd convinced herself she'd tripped, but I'd never seen her take that path again.
It had been a busy day even before I started chasing rogue vampires—everyone grabbing sandwiches so they'd have more time to board up and batten down. It wouldn't make up for the week of lost business after the storm, but it was something. My feet were sore, my wing crests ached, and my feathers were sticky with sweat and grease. I wanted nothing more than to dive into the ocean. I didn't have my swimsuit, but I didn't care. I started shucking my clothes.
I was down to my bra and underwear when the rain-heavy air shifted behind me. I already knew who it was, so I didn't turn around. He landed in the sand with a soft shush and walked toward me. I sighed and pulled my jeans back on.
"Evening, Susannah." He stood next to me and folded his arms.
He had dark brown skin and cardinal-red wings with black markings to match his hair. He was the Atlanta's guardian, serving his city just as I served mine.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
He was four hundred miles from home. Even as old and strong as he was, it wouldn't have been an easy trip. Guardians lose strength the farther we are from our anchor points. Too far, and we fade away entirely.
"I have a candidate for you."
I didn't look at him. "It's not a good time."
He laughed, big and loud. "Not a good time? It's been ten years and she says it's not a good time." In my peripheral vision, I saw him shake his head.
"Hank, this hurricane's going to hit in three hours, I've got a rogue vampire running around, and my line cook just quit. She can wait a week."
Hank smiled. "He."
"You heard me."
I frowned. Male healers are uncommon. About as uncommon as female guardians.
"You know I'd rather work with a woman."
"Ah, yes, that proved to be a splendid idea with the last one." His lips twisted. "How long did she last?"
"She was a disaster. You saw her with that gunshot victim. She went into hysterics."
Hank looked at his bitten-down nails and sighed. "Susannah, you can't reject everyone out of hand. Potential healers aren't exactly common. It took me a long time to find this one."
"I don't recall asking you to look." Healers are like guardians: We can anchor to our birthplaces, draw power from them to amplify our gifts. But Biloxi isn't all that big, and the number of born-and-bred natives with potential is low. I had no idea how Hank had found this one, but it couldn't have been easy.
"Give him a chance. A trial. That's all I ask."
I thinned my lips. Hank was the ranking guardian in the Southeast. He was the sort to see this as his duty.
"I'm not going to take that risk again," I said.
"It was a long time ago." He turned to face me squarely. "This isn't just about one person's life. And it's not just about you." His eyes were kind through the gentle rebuke.
The breeze was picking up. I beat my wings against it, letting it riff through my feathers with a phuttering sound. I remembered the dead girl on the boardwalk. Hank, wisely, stayed silent. Deep in the oncoming wall of rain over the gulf, lightning struck.
"After the storm passes," I said.
He inclined his head. "I'll send him." He looked up, assessed the sky and took flight in a smooth burst of muscle and power. I watched him disappear into the cloudbank.
It took an hour for the drizzling rain to turn pounding and the storm surge to hit the high-tide mark. The power winked out along the coast in a scattered line, generators going on in a handful of houses. A few lights were still on in the high rises, but the smaller hotels were dark. I could have closed my eyes and mapped the shape of the skyline in my mind. My beautiful, flawed, complicated city. And now I was going to have to let someone else into it and trust him not to screw up.
Trust myself not to screw up.
The worst of the storm passed in the small hours of the morning, and the calm of it woke me. I stood in the center of my kitchen and felt for my city, anxious. It wasn't nearly as bad as Camille or Katrina, but I still felt weak. It was going to take some time for both of us to grow strong again.
The power was still out, but I was starving. In another few days there might be people looking for an easy meal, but right now, I couldn't justify turning on the generator. I got out the camp stove I kept for emergencies and used it to make scrambled eggs and toast.
It was still raining outside—I could hear it drumming on the roof and the boarded windows. I opened the back door to watch the wind push the water around in low spots in the street. The flooding wasn't bad. I was sure the news crews were out making the worst of it, but I'd seen much worse. My connection to the city was muddy and fragile, but I could tell there hadn't been any deaths. A relief.
I ate my eggs and toast in my dining room and listened to the radio reports. Trees down, a few places flooded farther inland. People would be needing help. That was the rest of my job. A guardian draws strength from her city, and the healthier it is, the more vibrant, the stronger the guardian. Every day, secondaries like Max brought stories of people who needed help. Short-term loans, new coats. Food. Revenge. After this, there would be more petitions than usual. I pondered the balance of my bank account and wondered how many I could satisfy.
I was still thinking about it when I heard the click of my back door closing.
I was on my feet in an instant, flaring my wings and listening. Someone moving around. Human, male from the smell of him. A looter? I wasn't picking up the telltale tingle of threat in my wingtips, but that could have been due to the storm. I heard his fingers drumming on the stainless-steel prep counter. Had I forgotten to lock the door? I pulled my glamour over me like a coat and moved silently to the doorway between the service counter and the grill.
I saw him. Next to the deep-fry station. One well-muscled, tan arm and a ratty Converse sneaker. He hadn't seen me. Yet.
I launched myself at him.
He put his arms up in a defensive posture seconds before I tackled him, and we went down in a tangle of limbs and muffled grunts. We ended up on the floor with my forearm pressed into his throat and my thighs pinning him to the tile.
"What are you doing here?" I snarled.
He made a thick, wheezing sound and pointed at his throat. I let up a fraction.
"You must be the guardian," he said.
I was surprised enough to lean back. "Who the hell are you?"
He levered himself up on his arms. "Jason Delacourt. Hank should've told you I'd be coming."
I narrowed my eyes. That bastard.
"You think you could, ah, let me up?" He shifted his eyes to where my hips were still pinning his legs. He must be a runner—his thighs were like granite. I didn't move.
"How did you get in?"
"It's raining pretty hard out there," he said, as if this answered my question. "Hank didn't tell me—"
"Not to break into private property?"
"That you're a woman. Well ..." He flicked his eyes to my wings, which were still flared out defensively. "... a female, anyway."
I snapped them shut. "How can you see them? You shouldn't be able to see them."
"That thing you do ..." He twirled his finger in the direction of my head. "It doesn't work on me. Sorry."
"It doesn't matter." I stood, releasing him.
"They're pretty. Like a heron." He smiled. It was a light-up-your-face, movie-star smile. A smile to make women go weak. I focused on his nose.
"What are you doing here?"
He looked at me like I might be not quite right in the head. "I'm the healer. Hank said you needed me."
He stood and leaned against the wall. He was wearing khaki cargo shorts and a wrinkled button-up shirt, and his light-brown hair was shaggy and untrimmed. His sneakers were soaked through. By his feet was a faded red backpack covered in patches that said "100 DIVES," "Dive Belize" and "Let's Get Wet." That last one included a cartoon of a large-breasted mermaid. I was going to kill Hank.
"Oh yes, I know Hank sent you, and I know you're a healer. What I want to know is what you're doing here now, in the middle of a hurricane, when I specifically told Hank I didn't want to see you until the storm was over."
"Listen, lady." His eyes flicked to my wings again. "Or whatever you are. Three weeks ago I had no idea creatures like you existed. This guy with wings the color of a fucking Falcons jersey tells me I can use my gift to help out my hometown, and would I mind just dropping by to see what I think of the resident guardian angel? So here I am. You don't want me, no problem. I'll just catch the next bus out of town." He crossed his arms over his chest and looked at me.
This was just like Hank. Send this healer, this overly attractive, immature, fumbling boy, and expect me to just take him in.
"Fine," I said. "Fine."
"All right, then." He picked up his bag. "Where am I staying?"
"I have a motel across the road. I'll get you a room."
I picked up my keys with my good hand and started for the door. As I passed him, he saw the bandage on my other hand and stopped me.
"Whoa, let me take care of that for you." He took a step forward and, before I could move away, picked up my hand.
His skin was warm. It shocked me. Guardians have higher body temperatures than humans, so I wasn't used to feeling warmth from anyone's touch. I wasn't used to feeling anyone's touch, period. I nearly jerked back, but he was handling my hand so lightly, like it was a hollow egg, I found it hard to pull away.
"What happened?" he asked.
"Nothing of importance. I'm fine."
He quirked his mouth. "Sure you are. But let me take care of it anyway." He paused. "I can tell it hurts."
I didn't have an answer for that. He was right.
He didn't wait for my permission. His other hand hovered over my knuckles and, in seconds, the angry red flesh faded to pink. My skin felt warm and tingly. I shook out my fingers.
"That wasn't necessary."
He laughed. "You mean you weren't going to bleed to death? Huh."
I gave him a look that would've made any of my wait staff run instantly to the back and find side work to do. It would've made my egotistical head chef stop ranting at the line cooks. It would've made Max disappear for at least three hours. Jason only laughed again. I did my best to betray no emotion whatsoever.
"You must be tired," I said. "It's the only explanation." I walked out into the rain without waiting to see if he'd follow.
© A.J. Larrieu
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